Editor’s note: For those who are wondering about the retro title of this black-history series, please take a moment to learn about historian Joel A. Rogers, author of the 1934 book 100 Amazing Facts About the Negro With Complete Proof, to whom these “amazing facts” are an homage.
Amazing Fact About the Negro No. 66: How did Black History Month come into being?
Finding the roots of Black History Month helps explain why, as I recently told Tom Joyner on his morning radio show, every day should be Black History Month. A fully integrated, year-round curriculum reflecting the mutually constitutive histories of the American people was what Black History Month’s founder, Carter G. Woodson, had in mind when he began articulating the counter-narrative to Jim Crow in the early 20th century. That notion also gave me the drive to write, host and produce my latest documentary series for PBS, the six-part, six-hour journey on film, The African Americans: Many Rivers to Cross, covering the 500-year sweep of African-American history from the age of exploration to the presidency of Barack Obama.
Every African-American historian is, in a sense, a descendant of Carter G. Woodson, and though many may question the relevancy of Black History Month today, I believe strongly that for all its potential misuses, we should continue to embrace it as an opportunity to lobby school leaders for the kind of curriculum reform to which he pointed us, but did not achieve, in his lifetime.
The Lincoln Jubilee and National Half-Century Anniversary Exposition of Negro Freedom
According to the website of the Association for the Study of African American Life and History, Woodson’s legacy organization, the spark for Black History Month was lit by the subject we examined last week: emancipation. In the United States, 1915 marked the 50th anniversary of the end of the Civil War and ratification of the 13th Amendment abolishing slavery forevermore. Taking the lead was Illinois, Abraham Lincoln’s home state, his final resting place and the first state to ratify the 13th Amendment in February 1865. Fifty years on, Illinois had also become a main destination for waves of black workers leaving the South for better paying jobs in what we now call “the Great Migration.” Binding them together was a hunger for looking back at the odds they had defied.
The focal point of the effort was the Lincoln Jubilee and National Half-Century Anniversary Exposition of Negro Freedom, which launched in Chicago as a mini-Smithsonian Institute. Measuring African Americans’ progress since the Civil War, the massive historical exhibition was housed at the famous Chicago Coliseum between August and September 1915.
According to a recap in the Chicago Defender on Sept. 18 of that year, 100,000 visitors took the tour, with 20,000 attending a celebration there led by the city’s popular white mayor, William Thompson. “If the three hundred years’ experience of this people in this country don’t entitle them to one public holiday,” Thompson wrote in his remarks, “then let us abolish public holidays as foolish and meaningless because this particular one celebrates the emancipation of four million human beings from bondage.” Political pandering? There was some of that. But implicitly Thompson was also making a case for setting aside the anniversary of emancipation as American’s secular analogue to the Exodus, with throngs of black attendees reinforcing the message by singing “John Brown’s Body” to cap off the affair.
Outside the hall—really, across the country—however, the contrasting reality of American race relations couldn’t have been starker. 1915, as you’ll recall from past columns, was the height of the Jim Crow era, a year when, in the American South, there were more than 50 lynchings of blacks alone, and in the White House, President Woodrow Wilson screened the painfully racist and repressive version of Civil War and Reconstruction history depicted in D.W. Griffith’s silent film, Birth of a Nation. For 20 years, “separate but equal” had been enshrined in constitutional law, so that in nearly every sphere, African Americans encountered segregation practices reinforcing their status as second-class citizens.
At the same time, blacks fleeing the South, while facing their share of discrimination in the North, gained a greater degree of social freedom and economic opportunity working in factories than ever before, and the 50th anniversary of emancipation in Chicago only anticipated what was to come in the 1920s with the ascendance of the New Negro Movement and the Harlem Renaissance.